HEART OF ALENE – If you’ve been walking through McEuen Park on a Friday night this summer, you’ve probably seen Michael Lenz playing dodge ball on the tennis courts.
The games are free, open to everyone and often attract crowds of passers-by.
Lenz wants it to be that way, but he fears the rules for using the facilities in the town of Coeur d’Alene will force him to be a game-changer.
His love for the dodge ball began after experiencing a similar pickup game in downtown Seattle. While on a date, Lenz was walking through a park when he saw a large crowd watching an “intense dodge ball game”.
“So I said to the girl I was on a date with, ‘Here’s my wallet – keep it for a second,” Lenz said. “I ran over there and probably played for an hour and then came back.”
And how was it ?
“It was the last time I saw her,” he said.
Lenz said the dodge ball quickly became a big part of his life that he wanted to share with the Coeur d’Alene community.
The band started performing at McEuen Park in June. Most weeks the crowd is sufficient for teams of at least 12, if not more, he said.
“It’s a great way to meet people, get out and get some exercise,” Lenz said. “The free dodge ball is one of my passions. I don’t charge anyone and I don’t make money with it.”
But concerns arose when the Coeur d’Alene Parks and Recreation Department said the group needed a municipal permit before using the facilities. Shortly after the first contact with the parks department, Lenz said the city had put up a sign warning of permit requirements on the courts.
“Activities organized with a fixed day and time require a permit as this is a dedicated use of the facilities,” said recreation program coordinator Adam Rouse. “The fee pays for a staff member to be on site and alleviates any issues with the public coming to court.”
Rouse said permit fees are typically around $ 40 per hour per court. However, Rouse said the city had worked with walk-in activities to require each attendee to sign a liability waiver and pay $ 2.
Part of the city’s reasoning for reaching out to the dodge ball group was a concern that other residents felt “running away from the field,” Lenz said.
The department does not register complaints from citizens, but Rouse said he received several calls regarding dodge ball activity.
Lenz said he usually arrives early to let pitch users know about his plans and invite them to play dodge ball. He said there had rarely been any problems. This is how out-of-town visitors Michelle Castillo and her son Bailey discovered the game.
“We were done playing tennis and happy to go,” Michelle said. “We went back to our hotel room, got changed and decided to come back.”
On August 10, Lenz told city council about his concerns that his group would disappear if he could not pay for the permit. Since the games are free and the number of participants varies, Lenz was concerned that the imposition of fees would scare people away.
City Councilor Dan Gookin started working with Lenz after hearing his story, particularly his fear that the city might “kick him out of the park” and turn off the lights at the facilities. Gookin said the parks are free for public use, but the city needs to be informed of events being held for proper management.
“It sounds bureaucratic, but it makes it fair for everyone,” Gookin said.
In a subsequent meeting with Gookin and city staff, the group discussed possibilities of licensing or partnering with the city for dodge ball games.
Gookin said similar partnerships have been positive for the city, citing new pickleball courts and the Coeur d’Alene Skatepark.
“Sometimes town hall seems tough, and we can be,” Gookin said. “But I think deep down everyone wants to do something good to help the community.”
Several park visitors stopped to watch dodge ball games last Friday night. Coeur d’Alene resident Jen Freeman sat on the sidelines as she watched her 13-year-old son and friend play for hours.
“I would rather know that my kids are here playing dodge ball and exercising outside rather than just sitting in their rooms playing video games or causing problems,” said Freeman.
Going forward, Lenz said he is considering all options to continue playing dodgeball, including sponsorship and funding opportunities.
“We are trying to find the best way the city can manage our use of the land while still keeping the game in McEuen and leaving it free for everyone to play,” said Lenz.